Oneida tribe

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Tribal flag
Total population
Regions with significant populations
Flag of United States United States (Wisconsin, New York)
Flag of Canada Canada (Ontario)
Onyota'aka, English, other Iroquoian dialects
Kai'hwi'io, Kanoh'hon'io, Kahni'kwi'io, Christianity, Longhouse Religion, Other Indigenous Religion
Related ethnic groups
Seneca Nation, Onondaga Nation, Tuscarora Nation, Mohawk Nation, Cayuga Nation, other Iroquoian peoples

The Oneida (Onyota'a:ka or Onayotekaono, meaning "the People of the Upright Stone, or standing stone," are a Native American/First Nations people and are one of the five founding nations of the Iroquois Confederacy (Haudenosaunee) in the area of upstate New York. Originally the Oneida inhabited the area that later became central New York, particularly around Oneida Lake and Oneida County.

For many years the Iroquois maintained their autonomy, battling the French who were allied with the Huron, enemy of the Iroquois. Generally siding with the British, a schism developed during the American Revolutionary War when the Oneida and Tuscarora supported the Americans. After the American victory, Joseph Brant and a group of Iroquois left and settled in Canada on land given them by the British. Many of the Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca, and Tuscarora stayed in New York, settling on reservations where they continue to live, and many Oneida moved to a reservation in Wisconsin.

Most Oneida people today are not agriculturalists and the rural lifestyle which depends on a rural garden, home canning, baking, sewing, arts and crafts, and the raising of livestock is now a rarity on the Oneida settlement in Canada. However, every year people participate and enter the various agricultural and home arts competitions of their annual fair. Those on the New York and Wisconsin reservations have developed businesses, including gambling casinos to support tribal members. Through such efforts much of the poverty has been alleviated and educational and health care facilities established. The Oneida communities also maintain their involvement in the Haudenosaunee, retaining their government and annual ceremonies, and teaching the Oneida language to their children, keeping alive their heritage which has much to offer to the contemporary world.

The People of the Standing Stone

The name Oneida is the English mispronunciation of Onyota'a:ka which means People of the Standing Stone. The identity of the People of the Standing Stone is based on a legend in which the Oneida people were being pursued on foot by an enemy tribe. The Oneida people were chased into a clearing within the woodlands and disappeared instantaneously. The enemy of the Oneida could not find them and so it was said that these people had turned themselves into stones that had stood in the clearing. As a result, they became known as the People of the Standing Stone.


Haudenosaunee flag, representing the original five nations that were united by the Peacemaker. The tree symbol in the center represents an Eastern White Pine, the needles of which are clustered in groups of five.

The Oneida are one of the five original nations of the Iroquois Confederacy (Haudenosaunee). This confederacy, complete with a constitution known as the Gayanashagowa (or "Great Law of Peace"), was established prior to major European contact. The exact date of its establishment is not known, although it has existed continuously existed since at least the fourteenth or fifteenth century.

Oral tradition tells of how the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk people had been warring against each other causing great bloodshed. To address this, the Creator sent a messenger to remind the people of the true lifestyle so that they could live in peace. The two spiritual leaders, Ayonwentah (generally called Hiawatha due to the Longfellow poem) and Deganawidah, "The Great Peacemaker," brought the message of peace to the five tribes. In their travels to find the leaders of the five peoples, they came upon a woman who gave them shelter. She accepted their message and the Peacemaker set aside a special duty for women, the "Clan Mother."

The combined leadership of the Nations is known as the Haudenosaunee, which means "People of the Long House." The term is said to have been introduced by the Great Peacemaker at the time of the formation of the Confederacy. It implies that the Nations of the confederacy should live together as families in the same long house. The articles of their constitution are encoded in a memory device in the form of special beads called wampum that have inherent spiritual value. The Haudenosaunee flag is based on the "Hiawatha Wampum Belt" which was created from purple and white wampum beads centuries ago to symbolize the union forged when the former enemies buried their weapons under the Great Tree of Peace.

Once they ceased most infighting, the Confederacy rapidly became one of the strongest forces in seventeenth and eighteenth century northeastern North America. The Haudenosaunee engaged in a series of wars against the French and their Iroquoian-speaking Wyandot ("Huron") allies, another Iroquoian people but a historic foe of the Confederacy. By 1677, the Iroquois formed an alliance with the English through an agreement known as the Covenant Chain. Together, they battled the French and their Huron allies.

American Revolution

The Oneidas, along with the five other tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy, initially maintained a policy of neutrality in the American Revolution. This policy allowed the Confederacy increased leverage against both sides in the war, because they could threaten to join one side or the other in the event of any provocation. Neutrality quickly crumbled, however. The preponderance of the Mohawks, Senecas, Cayugas, and Onondagas sided with the loyalists. For some time, the Oneidas continued advocating neutrality and attempted to restore consensus among the six tribes of the Confederacy. But ultimately the Oneidas, as well, had to choose a side. Because of their closer proximity to rebel communities, most Oneidas favored the colonists (in contrast, the pro-British tribes were closer to the British stronghold at Fort Niagara). In addition, the Oneidas were influenced by the Protestant missionary Samuel Kirkland, who had spent several decades among them and through whom they had begun to form stronger cultural links to the colonists.

The Oneidas officially joined the rebel side and contributed in many ways to the war effort. Their warriors were often used as scouts on both offensive campaigns and in detecting enemy operations around Fort Stanwix (also known as Fort Schuyler). The Oneidas also provided an open line of communication between the rebels and their Iroquois foes. In 1777, at the Battle of Oriskany about fifty Oneida fought alongside the American militia. Many Oneidas formed friendships with Philip Schuyler, George Washington, and the Marquis de La Fayette and other prominent rebel leaders. These men recognized their contributions during and after the war, and Congress declared, "sooner should a mother forget her children than we should forget you" (Glathaar and Martin 2006).

Although the tribe had taken the colonists' side, individuals within the Oneida nation possessed the right to make their own choices, and a minority supported the British. As the war progressed and the Oneida position became more dire, this minority grew more numerous. When the important Oneida settlement at Kanonwalohale was destroyed, a large number of Oneidas defected and relocated to Fort Niagara to live under British protection.

1794 Treaty of Canandaigua

After the war they were displaced by retaliatory and other raids. In 1794, they, along with other Haudenosaunee nations, signed the Treaty of Canandaigua with the United States. They were granted 6 million acres (24,000 km²) of lands, primarily in New York; this was effectively the first Indian reservation in the United States. Subsequent treaties and actions by the State of New York drastically reduced this to 32 acres (0.1 km²). In the 1830s many of the Oneida relocated into Canada and Wisconsin, because of the rising tide of Indian removals.



Oneida is an Iroquoian language spoken primarily by the Oneida people in the U.S. states of New York and Wisconsin, and the Canadian province of Ontario. There are only an estimated 160 native speakers left, despite attempts to reinvigorate the language. The number of speakers in the Green Bay area of Wisconsin who learned the language as infants may be as low as six. At the end of the twentieth century, the majority of Oneida speakers lived in Canada (Asher 2007).


Iroquois longhouse housing several hundred people.

Governance, from an Iroquoian perspective, uses the metaphor that the HOUSE has already been built for the Iroquois people and their descendants by the ancient Peacemaker, his Helper, and the original 50 Chiefs. The responsibility of the Oneida people and the other four Nations (Mohawks,Cayuga, Senecas, and Onondagas) is the continuous renewal and maintenance of the house or the government to ensure that the political titles of Chiefs are filled by new leaders. Very aptly, the term Haudenosaunee is how many Iroquois people self-identify, which means that they are "builders of long houses," and the long house is also a symbol of Iroquoian government.

The story and the teachings of the Great Peace belong to all Iroquois people, not just the Oneida people, and this rule of law, indigenous-style, was open to all who chose to fall under it. The Great Law of Peace was based on natural law, but was also intended to be a living law which is at work when the Oneida people and Iroquois interacted within their long houses, families, clans, within their nations, and their entire Confederacy.

There are 50 Hoyane (chiefs), with a specific number allocated to each nation. The Oneida have nine chiefs who participate in the council. A sixth tribe, the Tuscarora, joined after the original five nations were formed. The Oneida chiefs act as their spokesmen in the Haudenonsaunee council meetings.

The position of chief is held for life. When a chief dies a new one is selected by the Clan Mothers, matriarchs of the clan. They observe the behavior from childhood into adulthood of the men, watching their actions as adults to see if they possess the qualities of a leader. When a man fulfills the qualities he is selected to replace the one who departed.

The Clan Mother is very important in the culture, being responsible for ensuring that the ways and traditions are kept. Individuals born into the Oneida Nation are identified according to their spirit name, their clan, and their family unit within a clan. Further to that, each gender, clan, and family unit within a clan all have particular duties and responsibilities. Clan identities go back to the Creation Story of the Onyota'a:ka peoples and there are three clans that the people identify with, either the Wolf, Turtle, or Bear clans. Clans are matrilineal—a person's clan is the same as his or her mother's clan.

If a person does not have a clan because their mother is not Oneida, then the Nation still makes provisions for customary adoptions into one of the clans. However, the act of adopting is primarily a responsibility of the Wolf clan, so many adoptees are Wolf.There are three Oneida clans, each representing an animal: wolf, bear, and turtle. The clans are matrilineallineage is transmitted through the mother.


According to Iroquois tradition, which the Oneida follow, there is a supreme creator, Orenda. Caring for mother earth is an important duty, and this is expressed through ceremonies which give thanks to the Creator and all of creation for still performing their duties. Ceremonies include festivals held for harvest, maple sap, strawberries, and corn. A special event was held in midwinter to give thanks and celebrate life on the earth, as well as forgive past wrongs. It engenders a feeling of harmony with the Creator.

In the early nineteenth century the teachings of Handsome Lake became popular among Oneida. Handsome Lake was a Seneca who taught about Jesus and also blended the traditional celebrations with Christian-style confessions of sin and urged Native Americans to stay away from alcohol. His teachings eventually were incorporated into the Longhouse religion, which continues to have followers today.

Oneida Bands and First Nations today

Oneida Indian Nation in New York

The Oneida Indian Nation (OIN) is the Oneida tribe that resides in New York and currently owns a number of businesses and tribal land in Verona, Oneida, and Canastota.

In the early 1990s, the Oneida tribe originally opened a bingo house. One of its more active members, Ray Halbritter, opened a tax free gas station across the street, known as SavOn (not to be confused with a gas station chain that exists in the western side of the U.S.). The cheaper gasoline made the gas station popular among the community, and eventually SavOn was bought by the Oneida Indian Nation and expanded into multiple locations within the area.

The most profitable business is the Turning Stone Casino & Resort, which has been expanding continuously since its inception. It began as a bingo hall and quickly grew into a huge facility that is considered a Class III gaming facility. The site includes nationally ranked hotels and restaurants. Many shows are performed throughout the year, as the resort is the host for a fall Professional Golfers' Association (PGA) tournament.

Oneida Nation of Wisconsin

A watertower for the Oneida Nation in Oneida, Wisconsin

The Oneida Nation of Wisconsin is an Indian reservation of the Oneida tribe on the west side of the Green Bay metropolitan area. It comprises portions of eastern Outagamie County and western Brown County. The shape of the reservation is an angled rectangle directed to the northeast, due to the area's layout along the Fox River, which runs in the same direction. The reservation has a land area of 265.168 km² (102.382 sq mi) and a 2000 census population of 21,321 persons, over half of whom live on reservation land that is also part of the city of Green Bay. The only community entirely on the reservation is Oneida.

The Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin is a sovereign nation, enjoying the same tribal sovereignty as all recognized Indian tribes in the United States. Theirs is a limited sovereignty—the tribes are recognized as "domestic dependent nations" within the United States—but to the degree permitted by that sovereignty, they are an independent nation outside of state law. The tribe's sovereignty means the state of Wisconsin is limited in the extent to which it can intervene legally in tribal matters.

With a series of casinos near Green Bay, Wisconsin, the Oneida tribe has, in a manner of only a few decades, gone from being a destitute people to enjoying a fair amount of social prosperity by investing a large portion of their profits back into their community, including a sponsorship of the Green Bay Packers. The new wealth generated by the tribe's gaming and other enterprises has enabled the tribe to provide many benefits for the members on the tribal rolls. Oneidas have free dental, medical and optical insurance, and they receive $800 every October. As with all other tribes, the Oneidas define who qualifies to be on those rolls. The Oneidas' requirements are fairly liberal, based entirely on blood quantum: Members are those with at least 1/4 Oneida blood. There is no additional requirement of matrilineality, as with the New York Oneidas and other tribes.

The means by which the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin betters its community has raised controversy, as has Indian gaming throughout the country. Many citizens of Green Bay, and many members of the Oneida tribe, have voiced concerns about the long-term detrimental effects a casino could have on the social structure and economy of Green Bay and within the tribe.

Oneida Nation of Thames

The Oneida Nation of the Thames is an Onyota'a:ka (Oneida) First Nation located in southwestern Ontario on what is commonly referred to as the "Oneida Settlement," located about a 20-minute drive from London, Ontario, Canada. The community contains three sub-divisions, a community center, and three parks. Bingo and radio bingo are very popular, and sports are important. The people attend long house and the annual ceremonies, and the Oneida language is taught to all children in school.

The Oneida people who live in this reserve have a traditional long house and government. The people own their own businesses. Two elementary schools have been built: Standing Stone and The Log School. A health clinic is located in downtown Oneida, which also includes a radio station, administration building, golden ages rest home, a volunteer fire hall, and a little market.

One of the annual secular events that the Oneida Nation of the Thames people engage is the Oneida Fair. The Oneida Fair was once a place and a time where the Oneida people could celebrate and compete in agricultural events and other events associated with their historical rural lifestyle.

Most Oneida people today are not agriculturalists and the rural lifestyle which depends on a rural garden, home canning, baking, sewing, arts and crafts, and the raising of livestock is now a rarity on the Oneida settlement. This is largely due to the social welfare system of Canada and the easy access that the Oneida people have to urban centers. However, every year people do participate and enter the various agricultural and home arts competitions of the fair, albeit on a smaller scale.

Oneida at Six Nations of the Grand River

Six Nations of the Grand River is the name applied to two contiguous Indian reserves southeast of Brantford, Ontario, Canada.

The original reserve was granted by Frederick Haldimand under the Haldimand Proclamation of October 1784 to Joseph Brant and his Iroquois followers in appreciation of their support for the Crown during the American Revolution. In 1785, a census showed that 1,843 Natives lived there which included 448 Mohawk, 381 Cayuga, 245 Onondaga, 162 Oneida, 129 Tuscarora, and 78 Seneca. There were also 400 from other tribes including Delawares, Nanticokes, Tutelos, and even some Creeks and Cherokees (Kelsay 1984). Joseph Brant also invited several white families to live on the grant, particularly former members of Brant's Volunteers and Butler's Rangers.

Today, Six Nations of the Grand River is the most populous reserve in Canada, with a recorded population in 2001 of 21,474. The reserve has both a traditional Iroquois council of chiefs and an elected band council conforming to Canadian government requirements.

Notable Oneida

  • Ohstahehte, the original Oneida Chief who accepted the Message of the Great Law of Peace
  • Graham Greene, actor
  • Cody McCormick, NHL hockey player for Colorado Avalanche
  • Joanne Shenandoah, award-winning singer and performer
  • Moses Schuyler, co-founder of the Oneida Nation of the Thames Settlement
  • Polly Cooper, leader, aided the Continental army during the American Revolution at Valley Forge in the winter campaign of 1777-1778
  • Gino Odjick, NHL hockey player for Vancouver Canucks, New York Islanders, Flyers, Canadians
  • Chief Skenandoah, Oneida leader during the American Revolution

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Asher, R. E. 2007. Atlas of World Languages. New York, NY: Routlege. ISBN 978-0415310741.
  • Glatthaar, Joseph T. and James Kirby Martin. 2006. Forgotten Allies: the Oneida Indians and the American Revolution. New York, NY: Hill and Wang. ISBN 0809046016.
  • Graymont, Barbara. 1972. The Iroquois in the American Revolution. Syracuse University Press. ISBN 0815600836.
  • Kelsay, Isabel. 1984. Joseph Brant 1743-1780 Man of Two Worlds. Syracuse University Press. ISBN 0815601824.
  • Levinson, David. 1976. An Explanation for the Oneida-Colonist Alliance in the American Revolution. Ethnohistory 23(3): 265-289.
  • Taylor, Alan. 2006. The Divided Ground. Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 0679454713.
  • United States Census Bureau. Oneida Reservation and Off-Reservation Trust Land, Wisconsin. Retrieved October 25, 2008.
  • Waldman, Carl. 2006. Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes. New York, NY: Checkmark Books. ISBN 978-0816062744.

External links

All links retrieved November 17, 2022.


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